Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

Success is going from failure to failure, without losing your enthusiasm. 

~Winston Churchill

We need every person in Oregon involved in our children's future. Oregon has de-funded education for decades, is living through a deep recession, and is facing educational reform, i.e., the Common Core, whether you like it or not. On top of that, the societal pressures our kids are facing are huge. It will not be any one person improving our educational system. It will take moving the whole system to a new level of intention, requirement, and action. So let's talk about the book...

First, I'll start by saying that I think this book should be required reading by educators and parents alike - whether you home school, charter school, private school, or public school your kids. Second, I've quoted a lot from the book and those quotes are italicized. Third, Ripley wrote in the past tense much of the book and for ease of reading, I've changed a few verb tenses to the present tense. Last, I've highlighted a few select points that I took away from the book, but there is no way I could even begin to cover it all, so read the book! 

In the Smartest Kids, Ripley travels all over the world to interview educators and students alike based on the results of the PISA exam. She follows exchange students from America to Finland, Korea, and Poland. She goes where the top learners reside, and seeks the reasons for their success. She looks at the results of the PISA, which demands fluency in problem solving and the ability to communicate. She finds out who has critical thinking skills and who does not, because critical thinking skills are critical to thriving in a modern world.

What is the PISA you ask? PISA is a test developed by a kind of think tank for the developed world, called the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the scientist at the center of the experiment, is Andreas Schleicher. When you see the statistics on who is best in the world in math, reading, and writing, and who is not, it's the PISA exam behind those results. 

As for us Americans, our children scored 12th in reading. In math, the average score placed the United States twenty sixth in the world, below Finland (third), Korea (second), and Poland (nineteenth). Math has a way of predicting kids' futures. Teenagers who have mastered higher-level math classes are far more likely to graduate from college, even when putting aside other factors like race and income. They also earned more money after college. 

Why does math matter so much? Some reasons are practical: More and more jobs require familiarity with probability, statistics, and geometry. The other reason is that math is not just math. Math is a language of logic. It is a disciplined and organized way of thinking. There is a right answer; there are rules that must be followed. More than any other subject, math is rigor distilled. Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher-order habits in kids' minds: the ability to reason, for example, to detect patterns and to make informed guesses. Those kinds of skills have rising value in a world in which information is cheap and messy.

America's math handicap afflicts even our most privileged kids, who are more privileged than even the most advantaged kids in other nations. Our top math students are still behind folks. Let's wake up! If we don't, our kids are going to have a rude awakening when they get to college and find that those who have come to the U.S. for their education from other nations are better prepared for our schools than our own students. Our world is becoming more global, not less.

Interestingly enough, the PISA reveals that spending on education does not make kids smarter. Everything-everything-depends on what teachers, parents, and students do with those investments. So what are some of these other nations doing to invest in their education systems?

Ripley points out that in Finland acceptance into a teacher training college is like getting into medical school. Finland invests in educating their teachers first, before their teachers can become educators. Only a select few are accepted into teacher training colleges based on their grades. Further, by the time they graduate they will have spent about as much time in teacher training school as someone in medical school. This transfers a great deal of respect to the teacher and creates a culture of both hyper-prepared teachers as well as environment that clearly communicates that learning is essential and respected.

Further, the Finnish matriculation exam, or final high school exam, is an example of the self discipline and persistence kids need in order to do well. Ripley found that the Finnish final exam is much harder than even our NY State Regent's exam, by alot. So, are Finnish kids smarter than U.S. kids? There are no studies that attest to that. Studies show that teachers are better prepared and more is expected of both teachers and students in Finland (and high achieving countries). In addition, once teachers are in a classroom, they are given great autonomy to teach what they would like with little interference. Also, more kids access special needs services sooner in Finland; they don't let a student fall behind, and there is no stigma in receiving extra or focused help when needed. 

NY State Regent's Exam Samples (link)
(I will be giving my kids these sample tests soon.)

The World's Smartest Kids also follows exchange students in Korea and Poland. What is clear is that the Korean way of learning and studying from eight in the morning to midnight is not working to produce happiness and well rounded students. Ripley likens it to being on a hamster wheel, and it should not be adopted here.

Poland however, is an interesting case of education reform that is working. This young post communist nation is rapidly making education a priority, and while reform is painful, they are getting good results. They didn't replace their teachers, they began investing in their teachers and students in more effective ways. Some of the results? They beat us at math on the PISA. Who's noticing? American companies are building factories in Poland because their students are better prepared to work in a high tech manufacturing environment.

Ripley also finds a lack of technology in classrooms around the world, and they are still out scoring us on the PISA. Technology can be powerful, but a lack of technology, does not put a classroom at a disadvantage with the right teacher teaching.

As for immigration, Ripley found that roughly 3% of kids in schools are immigrant children - no matter where she went. Yes, there are schools that have a higher percentage, but generally speaking, classrooms across the world have about 3% of their students as immigrants. The case cannot be made, that immigrants are skewing our test results in the U.S.

It was also very interesting to me to see her stats on public vs. private education. At the time (2011), 11 percent of children in the United States were enrolled in private schools--less than average for the developed world. According to PISA data, private schools did not add much value; private-school students did better than public schooled students on the PISA, but not better than would have been expected if they'd been in public school, given their socioeconomic status.

As for preschool education and younger, Ripley found that giving your kids alphabet blocks while young did nothing for them. Reading to them daily, gave them a year of extra education in their young lives. I also found amazing her stats on parent involvement in U.S. schools. My time in the school, makes little to no difference for my child's education. I can help other kids at the school or help with Parent Teacher Committees (PTC), but my kids will not thrive because of my investment in their school. My kids will thrive in school and in life based on what I give them from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. each day. Did they learn their multiplication tables and math tricks, did I read to them, did we learn together? Did I make sure their homework got done and can they can articulate what they learned?

Ripley's words are convicting as she wraps the results up...We had the schools we wanted in a way. Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergarteners learn math while they still loved numbers. They did show up to complain about bad grades, however. And they came in droves, with video cameras and lawn chairs and full hearts, to watch their children play sports.

That mindset had worked alright for most American kids, historically speaking. Most hadn't needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn't gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional in America. But everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They need a culture of rigor. 

There were different ways to get rigor, and not all of them were good. In Korea, the hamster wheel created as many problems as it solved. Joyless learning led to mostly good test scores, not to a resilient population. (High suicide rate in adults.) Still, kids in hamster wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder, and do better. They were prepared for the modern world. 

In the moon bounce (the U.S.), kids (are) were being misled. Too much of the time, they were being fed a soft diet of pabulum by middling professionals. If they failed, there were few obvious consequences. Only later, after high school, would they discover they had been tricked. The real world does not always give second and third chances; the real world doesn't give credit for just showing up.

Education is sorely needing a boost in our nation and "We the People" must engage if we want a quality education for our children and a future for our nation. Are we teaching our kids to be driven to succeed or driven to learn? Is there a difference? I believe so. If we are driven to simply succeed, what do we do when we fail? Do we give up, and call it a day? I think that is a huge danger. If however, we are driven to learn, we keep on learning because learning is for life and life is for learning, and the time to learn becomes NOW.

While this book is not about the Common Core, it is coming and there is much disagreement about it. But, everyone should be able to agree that our children need higher standards in the American education system. There are those who would question my Christianity, faith, and attitudes about democracy for the comments I'm making on the Common Core. Don't be mistaken, I'm not thrilled with the Common Core, but I don't think it's going away, and I do think higher standards are appropriate for our students. There are radical differences in how our states are educating our kids. We've been in amazing school districts and ones with far fewer resources for our children. It's painful to see the discrepancy and know what is possible if collectively people are willing to risk change. As they say, "no pain, no gain." However, our kids will only rise to the challenge of the Common Core if they know we believe they are up to the challenge. We need hard enough schooling environments in which our kids have to deal with failure. Not everyone can afford the luxury of home schooling or private school. We must serve our children with an education, all of them, and we need to give them enough rigor while young to make them more resilient. 

As for disagreements about how the Common Core is administered and what is taught, you can still stand up and say, "No, my child won't read that book, or that material is not okay for our family." If we don't teach our children how to take a stand at school to follow their convictions, when will they learn? We cannot control and shelter them all through their schooling years, release them to college, and somehow expect them to be the one who raises their hand in college to disagree with their professor, or a cocky graduate student. Yes, a few of those students exist, but they are few and far between. For most of us, the opportunity to engage while we are young, to practice over and over, is what creates a young adult who is willing to take a stand for morality. In our home, we talk a lot about thinking about what it is we think about it. We have to practice this over and over and make it a practice in our lives. I pray that the goal at our house is to engage others in exploring and recognizing moral truths without losing our own compass. I firmly believe, we will never win by the sword, we will win by love, and carrying the true light of truth into the world. As for the truth? God's Word can stand on its' own, I am simply the bearer of the light. I do not create the light. That requires some humility.

No matter how you and I educate our children, we need to work education out as a community and continue to invest in all the children around us. It is indeed a fine balance, doing what is best for my child(ren) vs. staying where you may be discouraged by what the future looks like. But, as I shared with the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction in Oregon Rob Saxton, "We will either grasp a vision and grow, or fail to catch a vision and collectively groan." Vision requires intent, preparation, planning, and implementation. Vision requires action. Action comes with a cost, and it's uncomfortable. Change is rarely, if ever comfortable, but our kids need more and we will either give it to them and help them thrive, or we will fail to step up to the challenges before us. If we fail, the American dream, amazingly enough, rooted in grit, determination, and perseverance, will be uprooted from our land. I don't want to move to Finland to find the American dream. Do you?

Interesting Links:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fall Marches Forward

I seem to be in catch up mode since our arrival home from Pennsylvania. I do intend to post more information on Philly and Pennsylvania. I just haven't gotten to it yet! And to be honest, I'm still pondering Gettysburg, and not at all sure, how I'm going to convey the depth of the place in few words. I do not want to do an injustice to a place of such significance and loss.

The kids are busy with art classes, piano, and fall sports. Is there anything more glorious than a beautiful fall day filled with soccer? We've had an exceptionally beautiful fall in the Pacific Northwest (minus the leftover typhoon in September), and we've been savoring sunny fall soccer around here.
The light slanting through the trees amazes me each morning. The soft hues and golds of fall are my favorite. I closed the animals up last night, and sat stargazing. It was early, about 8 p.m., and the moon had not yet risen. A shooting star raced across the heavens, and was gone, just that quick. Rarely, do I see them. So rarely, do I sit still long enough to ponder His creation. Working on that. 

As fall advances toward winter, we are praying about where He wants us to root in for winter, and where He may root us next year. We are trusting He will guide us to the right path, when the view is obscure.

Who is the man who reverently fears and worships the Lord? Him shall He teach in the way that he should choose. ~ Psalm 25:12 (Amplified)

In these challenging times, we can shrink back and become less, or we can become more in Him. More to our communities, more to our families, and more to those around us. How hard this is to work out, but work it out we must. 

Humoring my family, I'm known to often mix my metaphors. One example? "It's time to bite the bull by the horns." Yes, sometimes you can't just grasp the bull by the horns, you gotta bite him! Whether, it be fear, anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, or just stepping in courage, sometimes we just gotta take a chunk out of the bull! It amused me to find the Message translation of Psalm 25:12 as such:

My question: What are God-worshipers like?
Your answer: Arrows aimed at God’s bull’s-eye.

That's the way through the maze. Aim your arrow at God's bull's-eye. What is God's bull's eye? Jesus. Love. Grace. Truth. Faith. Hope. Forgiveness. Intentionality. Action.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Birthday Celebrations and Unexpected Brandings

We headed east this past weekend and had a great time of fellowship and fun! I came away blessed and renewed by the love and friendship in our lives. We were filled up full with people we love very much and who choose to share deeply their lives with us. I'm kicking myself for not getting more pictures of our moments, and yet, the memories we made, will remain, and I will treasure them in my heart.
Saturday, we had planned to do some hiking at Smith Rock State Park, but the weather put a stop to that. No matter, it was branding day at the ranch. Like city slickers, we watched for awhile, then headed out to rummage through a nearby antique/farm shop. Brother found a handsome Navajo bracelet for $2.00. After a long nap (for some of us), we had a lovely dinner with friends.

Coming home, we managed to get to fall tilling. I'll plant a cover crop today. We are as usual, running behind on our yard chores. Yet, the Lord and the good fall weather are helping us out.
Yes, the lambs will be butchered this week. I'm trying hard not to think about it too much.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

ROOT'S Country Market and Auction Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Whether you put your boots up at ROOT'S, or run around taking it all in, ROOT'S is well worth the visit. I would go back to Pennsylvania just for ROOT'S. Yes, I would.
So what exactly is ROOT'S? ROOT'S is everything. ROOT'S is the world meeting at a rural crossroads in Pennsylvania. ROOT'S is an experience to soak up, and tap into. Set in the quiet countryside, ROOT'S is anything but quiet. There are license plates from many, many states in the parking lot, and people of every nation and race. Since 1925, people have been coming to ROOT'S. Everything under the sun, and then some, is sold on site.
Whoopie pies anyone? I caved and bought five. Yes, they were good, but I think one must acquire a taste for them while young. The coconut cream was the best, but it had real coconut in the frosting layer.
Need Kale plants in bulk? I was sorely tempted to buy MANY Kale plants for our friends, but that's another story!
The plant auction.
Every kind of animal you can imagine is available for auction. I would have felt a bit sad for the animals, if it were not so fascinating. And seeing as how we are meat eaters, I'm not gonna judge other meat eaters. I will add, that the chickens and animals were not crammed in their cages, like I've witnessed many times on the semi-trucks that come from the industrial bad boys.
The Amish flower and cheese girls and the Amish boys were darling. A dear Amish girl shared her dinner table with us, while we scarfed down our pulled beef sandwiches. She wore a smile the whole time. The pulled beef sandwiches do put pulled pork to shame. No doubt about it!

If you go: Say ROOT'S rhyming it with "books". 
Do not say Winnie the Pooh!
As the sun set in Pennsylvania, we soaked up the sounds, colors, and tastes. So much fun, under a big ol'setting sun. During our time in Penn's Woods (Pennsylvania), ROOTS was my favourite experience by far. I guess I'm a country girl at heart.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pennsylvania with the Kids

We wandered east last week to the city of brotherly love.
We wandered into corn fields in quieter corners of our land,
among corn sheaves and the setting sun, to play soccer with a friend. 
 We wandered east to get to know some great women and men.
We studied battles won, and battles lost.
We talked about what is worth fighting for: 
Freedom for all men, women, and children.
 We talked and walked, (and walked)
to live and learn, 
and turn the pages of history.
 We sought to make our story come alive, and their story too.
Because, We the People have a lot to learn.  

to be continued...